I Don’t Let My Kids Do Anything.

I hear it all the time, for as long as I’ve had kids. 16 freaking years now…which should get some kind of prize for endurance. Something like a bottle of whiskey every other month for the rest of my life.

Anyway, when my kids were two and dressed in striped and polka dots (with or without tutu), strangers on the street giving me a wink and saying, “Oh, you let her dress herself today?” When they were 5 and ordering meals at restaurants the waiters looking at me and asking if their choice was “allowed”. When they were 7 sitting in the hairstylist’s chair and asking to get their hair cut a certain way, the stylist asking me if I was OK with what they wanted. Now that Sassy has a rainbow mohawk I get a lot of “I can’t believe you let her do that!” from adults and “That’s so cool you let her do that!” from kids.

I get it, I used to do the same. I came from a model of parenting that made me in charge of holding the shit together for everyone. Not only for keeping everyone alive but for making them healthy, happy, clean, smart, respectful, obedient, pleasing to be around, and generally perfect in every way. In order to do this, I had very strict standards to maintain. Have everyone eat at the right time, wear the right clothes that properly blended in, have perfectly groomed long hair (girl) or short hair (boy), speak in the right tone of voice, and basically not do/say/wear/express anything that would freak out the general population. This was a tall order because, as you probably know by now, kids are fucking insane and run around like little monkeys most of the time. But, I managed.

Then I had 3 young kids and a husband that traveled 5 days out of the week. Still managed! Then I homeschooled all of them. Still managed! Then I developed this weirdly potent form of mono that laid me on my ass for months. Everything went right into the shitter. 3 solid months in bed, 3 more months after that of limited energy, and then 6 months of general lethargy but no more pain. For the 3 months I was in bed my kids took over like it was an episode of Pippi Longstocking. Our routine went like this: on one day I’d get out of bed long enough to take them to the grocery store and let them loose with their own carts. Whatever they could cook/eat/forage for themselves, they got. I was much too sick to invest much time in cooking or noticing what they were or weren’t eating enough of. The next day I’d take them to the library to pick out any book that interested them. I was much too sick to hover over them making sure they maintained their homeschool lessons. They did or didn’t do their own hair. They did or didn’t brush their own teeth. I had enough energy to advise them on things that were best for them, but in the end they had free reign and made their own choices during the day.

Up till that time, I was in pretty constant battle with them at their ages…9, 6, and 1. It just seemed like there was a battle at every turn…eat this, not that, do this, not that, look like this, not that. We were still happy, just not joyfully so. It’s a lot of work trying to make your kids perfect in society today!

When I let all the parental control go to focus on getting better, I felt like the worst mom in the world. The insane happiness of my kids only proved my deepest fears were coming true. Only kids who were up to no good could possibly be that happy. Loud laughter then little feet running up the stairs and into the room to tell me, “Mom! Golfer wanted to drink 3 cups of chocolate milk! So he did! And then he barfed all over the grass in front of the house!” is just one example. I started applying for the “most neglectful mom in the world” award.

But then I noticed, after the first month, that all the self direction my kids were applying in their lives was making them really really self reliant and responsible in ways I didn’t think possible. I never had another battle with Golfer over how much chocolate milk he could or couldn’t drink…he discovered that limit himself. They became aware of what foods made them feel good or bad. Candy was left uneaten while veggies and dip were voraciously consumed. Haircuts were given to the length that they wanted to take care of (short and buzzed all around) and I never battled over maintenance again. Learning was directed by passion and interest, at their own speed, and I couldn’t get enough books/movies/resources into the house fast enough. They put themselves to bed when they were tired. Woke up when they were ready. Ate when they were hungry. Turns out, kids might be crazy monkeys, but even crazy monkeys know what’s right to keep themselves thriving. So to, kids. Even Sassy, at 1, developed a great grasp of her own needs in ways I hadn’t thought to give her credit for.

I recovered from my mono from hell, but never recovered my old parenting paradigm. Instead I adopted unschooling, and embraced a kind of trust and respect with my kids that gives them responsibility for their own lives in a radically different manner. I don’t “let” my kids to anything. We discuss what we want to do and find ways to either make it happen or do something else. When Sassy wanted a rainbow mohawk we did it. Her hair, her choice. When Sassy wanted a permanent rainbow tattoo across her face, she settled for one made from markers. Her body, her choice (in a more temporary way, for now…)

Jada Pinkett Smith recently answered questions about how she could “let” her daughter, Willow, shave her head. I love what she said about it.

I don’t “let” my kids dress themselves any more than I would expect a husband or boyfriend to “let” me pick out my own clothes. It’s my body, I choose what to put on it…and the same goes for my kids. I don’t “let” my kids pick their hairstyle any more than I would expect a friend or coworker to “allow” me to grow my hair long or cut it short. It’s my own hair, I choose what to do with it. Same for my kids. Expression, discovery, and trail and error are our best friends, as well as unconditional respect and love. It’s amazing how seriously kids take responsibility for their own decisions when given the chance. Try it!